South End hikers trek to Washington’s summit
By BEN WATANABE
South Whidbey Record Sports, South Whidbey School District, South Whidbey Fire/EMS
August 3, 2012 · Updated 3:17 PM
It was a long way to the top of Mount Rainier, in more ways than just elevation and distance, for a group of hikers from South Whidbey.
Biting cold, whipping wind and altitude sickness greeted the eight climbers at the summit the morning of Sunday, July 15. Standing at the top of Washington, at 14,411 feet, the group had reached the culmination of planning that spanned nearly two years.
“The wind was like 65 miles per hour, so even though it wasn’t extremely cold, the wind made it so,” said Greg Ballog, the trip leader and a science teacher at South Whidbey High School.
Ballog led fellow district employee Kevin Lungren and his daughter Emma, three Falcon alumni and their two friends on the venture. The three Falcon alumni were Amy Barrow, Jen Baker and Reuben Baker, who brought their non-Whidbey friends Owen Jones and Colin White. The group dubbed the excursion “Redemption 2012” after a missed attempt at the state’s tallest peak last summer, when an ankle injury kept the full team from making the journey.
Trouble struck the group during the ascent, for which the climbers embarked at midnight and witnessed the Aurora Borealis phenomenon. Altitude sickness caused by low oxygen levels in high altitudes above 8,000 feet affected a few members, even leading one to a bit of dehydration and hypothermia. Ballog recalled seeing her lips turn blue, and promptly put her in a naturally made cave in the glacier to shield her from the wind, wrapping her in coats and sleeping bags. A drop of only a few degrees in core body temperature can lead to hypothermia, which led a couple members of the fellowship to experience shivering and mental confusion.
“The people that hadn’t been up there before kind of learned their limits,” Ballog said.
“It’s going to be uncomfortable,” he said of the journey.
Ballog, who has taught Advanced Placement biology at the high school for several years, used his experience and knowledge to check the climbing team during its summit attempt. He used a pulse oximeter to check blood oxygen levels, but also to motivate some of the climbers when they weren’t sure they could continue.
“It’s fun,” Ballog said. “I love seeing people push themselves.”
“A lot of times complaints come from fear,” he added.
Nevertheless, the group stood atop Washington and nearly three miles above the shores of Whidbey Island. Lungren, 54, and his daughter Emma, 15, spent the summer preparing for Rainier. They hiked Mount Adams earlier in July and iterated a motivational quote of sorts during the challenging moments.
“If you want something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to do something you’ve never done,” Lungren said.
One thing that Lungren praised about hiking was its physical effects. In the past year and a half, he shed about 30 pounds from walking with a weighted backpack and hiking around Washington.
“The biggest thing has been my personal conditioning,” Lungren said.
Ballog, an experienced mountaineer of 40 years, encouraged his group to physically prepare by March. His time-tested method of exercising included walking around some of the South End’s hilly areas wearing a loaded backpack for an hour and a half, three days a week.
The group did some potentially life-saving preparations, too. Lungren and some of the group went to Stevens Pass and practiced self-arresting, which is a technique invoked when sliding down a glacier or snowbank to stop or slow the descent. They also worked on rope training, how to tie ropes together for safety when crossing a glacier that can be pockmarked with snow-covered crevasses.
All the work went into one moment that lasted about one hour atop Mount Rainier.
“Everybody feels accomplished,” Ballog said.
“Even though there were a lot of people up there, it’s a pretty individual thing.”
Then there were the binding elements of the trip: an island and a mountain. On the summit, the two finally came together.
“It was a neat, South Whidbey High School-themed trip,” Ballog said.
Contact South Whidbey Record Sports, South Whidbey School District, South Whidbey Fire/EMS Ben Watanabe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-221-5300.